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November 11, 2010

I’ve been thinking about silence recently, probably because I’m in one of those super-busy times, yearning for it (and for time to sit down and post to this blog!). Silence in this case isn’t just about being quiet, but also about being present and still. Silence is the nature of retreat, where you stay quiet for days or weeks or months, and through that start to let the silence seep into you. And silence itself isn’t necessarily quiet – the world is a noisy place, and through silence we can start to hear it more fully. Silence are those little gaps we experience when we’re shocked, or moved, or even joyful, and there’s nothing other than what’s there – no future, no past, no blackberry, no deadlines, no regrets, no hope.

My friend Peter Arcese came and spoke at the City Bar Contemplative Lawyers Group last week, and offered a poem by Wallace Stevens called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. The first stanza was highly evocative:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

The Mindful Lawyer conference

October 31, 2010

I’m at The Mindful Lawyer conference at UC Berkeley Law School this weekend, and will have some posts on it in the weeks to come. It’s extremely heartening to be meeting with 180 like-minded lawyers — it’s only too bad that so many more were turned away for lack of space. For up to date news, please see Stephanie West Allen’s blog and her Twitter feed. This morning I’ll be on this panel talking about stress at work; yesterday my good friend Patton Hyman and I presented a workshop called Working With Fear Through Contemplative Disciplines, always a juicy topic for lawyers and law students.

Time management

September 8, 2010

Time – for many of us there’s not enough of it, and for some of us there’s too much of it. There’s rarely, unless we’re in the flow, just enough – even if things are going reasonably well, one day we find ourselves older and may wonder where the time went. (As Simon & Garfunkel and later the Bangles sang, “Time, time, time – see what’s become of me, while I looked around for my possibilities.”) If we have a stressful and time-consuming project, we are so relieved, for a moment, when it’s over – and then we might wonder where the next project is coming from, and get nervous if we’re not busy. So the question is, how can we manage time?

Actually, that’s a trick question – you can’t manage time. You can of course work on things like procrastination, organization, discipline, but you’re not managing time, you’re changing how you live your life with a goal of making you less anxious and relatively happier. You may quibble with this, but bear with me — there’s a deeper point here.

We all have assumptions about the nature of our world which we never question, but are in fact neither useful nor true. One such assumption is about the nature of time. We believe that there’s a past, present, future – but if we look at this belief carefully, we can see that actually the past is gone, the future is a dream, and it’s only ever now. We can know that intellectually of course, but we don’t live as if we do. We tend to look at our lives and think, well, I did this, and I have this much more to go, and I want to accomplish this in that time frame, and then later I’ll be – happy, relaxed, I’ll feel better. We’re planning now how to make ourselves feel better later. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t plan, and strive, and try to reach our goals – but we tend to expect that we’ll be happier then, once the goal is reached. So time manages us, in a sense – we tend to push off our expectations of happiness until later.

What do we mean by happiness anyway? We could mistake happiness for pleasure, or even relief from pain, but that’s not it — it’s not just about feeling better, or putting a temporary fix on a situation (which gets into why people become addicted to substances or sensations). Those kinds of feelings of pleasure or relief come and go, and are conditioned on external circumstances. There’s no single word in English, but the meditative traditions talk about a quality of wellbeing, in all emotional states, including grief, sadness, anger, even jealousy – we could still have an unconditional sense of wellbeing.

How to achieve this kind of happiness, wellbeing, is through the path of meditation, of becoming intimate with our minds and the ways in which we tend to act which cause suffering to ourselves and others instead of happiness. With this kind of insight we can start to change our habitual kinds of behavior, and to make choices, to act differently.

So back to time management: if our goal is to be happy (well, it is – nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “I hope I’m miserable today!”) then a necessary corollary to that goal is to realize, deeply, that it’s always now – this is an insight that we can develop and refine through meditation. Then we can further realize that we have the choice, as Chögyam Trungpa was fond of saying, to just cheer up on the spot, for no reason at all. True happiness (and time management) isn’t a function of external circumstance – it’s unconditional, and up to each of us. Try it – you’ll like it.

PS: I’m co-teaching a class at The Interdependence Project called The Buddhist Path, starting next Wednesday, September 15, at 7pm, 302 Bowery at Houston, NYC. Pre-registration is required; a study at home option is also available if you’re not in New York or the timing isn’t convenient.

Blame, Punishment, and Language

July 24, 2010

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Lera Boroditsky, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has a wonderful article called “Lost in Translation”, about how language influences the way people see the world. I would have thought this was self-evident, but Chomsky with his theory of universal grammar in the 60’s and 70’s put the kibosh on this approach; however, his theory has been tested and found to be wanting. Boroditsky discusses how our language can influence our judicial system, completely unconsciously:

Languages also shape how we understand causality. For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.” Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.
In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn’t normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn’t encode or remember the agent as well.
In another study, English speakers watched the video of Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” (a wonderful nonagentive coinage introduced into the English language by Justin Timberlake), accompanied by one of two written reports. The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase “ripped the costume” while the other said “the costume ripped.” Even though everyone watched the same video and witnessed the ripping with their own eyes, language mattered. Not only did people who read “ripped the costume” blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.
. . .
Patterns in language offer a window on a culture’s dispositions and priorities. For example, English sentence structures focus on agents, and in our criminal-justice system, justice has been done when we’ve found the transgressor and punished him or her accordingly (rather than finding the victims and restituting appropriately, an alternative approach to justice).

This could make you think twice (or more) about this country’s self-righteous approach to blame and punishment.


July 11, 2010

I’ve been thinking recently, as is my wont, about the nature of reality. This of course is a subject about which one might amuse oneself with recollections of college philosophy classes, or conversations in late night dorm rooms, but in this society I think we’re supposed to forget about questions like these once we become responsible adults. Lawyers in particular don’t (in my experience) pay much attention to this subject, as what we’re given is a framework in which to ply our craft, which is the American (or whatever country you’re in) judicial system, built (in this case) on English common law and the Constitution, and 220 or so years of judicial precedent. So the framework is fairly solid, and we tend to work around the edges.

But what if the framework is built on assumptions that might be incorrect? Well, how can you have an incorrect assumption in the law? These are just the laws and common law made by people, aren’t they? Laws can be applied unfairly and incorrectly, or laws can even be unfair and ultimately found unconstitutional, but if you have a constitutional law, how can it be based on an incorrect assumption?

Well, in order to follow this logic, let’s examine briefly the idea of restorative justice, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was based on a different kind of justice system, one that focuses on the needs of victims and offenders, instead of the need to satisfy the abstract principles of law or the need of the community to exact punishment. Punishment is only useful to prevent further harm, and it is not useful to keep someone imprisoned except in the case of someone who may continue to be of further harm to society.

The American judicial system is based on a very different structure, which is that punishment must be meted out in order to keep society in order, and keep the moral fabric of the majority intact (i.e., the “need of the community”) – hence so many minority young men in jail, and so many in jail for non-violent crimes.

What’s the incorrect assumption? In our system, it’s that punishment makes society (us) as a whole feel self-righteous and satisfied, makes people feel good, and safe, that “justice is served”. But it may not be justice to a young non-violent addict who needs help, or a sex worker who’s trying to pay the rent, or even to a violent criminal who’s long repented and is still in jail (cf. The Shawshank Redemption), or the “three strikes” felons, some of whom who may be merely guilty of not being too bright. What we’re doing in our system is not necessarily making society a better place, but first trying to make ourselves feel better through the punishment of others.

If we slow down and start to look at our minds through meditation practice, we start to see that our emotions are shifty, not solid, and indeed we’re not so solid ourselves – everything changes all the time, and there’s nothing we can point to that is permanent. So taking an action in order simply to make ourselves feel better doesn’t work, because of the shiftiness of our emotions – they always change. In particular, if we ever feel self-righteous, that’s a very good clue that we’re missing the point, that we’re trying to solidify what’s fundamentally not solid. If we’re serious about our meditation or contemplative practices, the question always is what’s the best thing to do right now for others, rather than how can I make myself temporarily feel better. So the view of punishment as an end in itself, as the solution to the problem, rather than a means to make society work better and do the most good for the most people, is (I would argue) an incorrect view about the nature of reality.


June 13, 2010

How do we work with co-workers, bosses, subordinates, partners, spouses, friends, who disagree with us?

If your purpose is to convince someone that you’re right and she’s wrong, you’ll make her more closed. So that’s not the point. But why would we enter a discussion or an argument, if it’s not to convince the other, or win?

The key to being able to work with others is to be able to separate how we feel from what we want to accomplish. In our meditation practice, we see how our thoughts come and go, our feelings go up, down, and sideways, and yet we’re still here, maybe with a little more insight as we sit more. We can apply this insight to how we interact with others – in some ways it’s about having a sense of humor, not taking our own emotions so seriously.

The particular emotion I’m talking about is that fear of not being right, of losing – again, paradoxically, and this is key, you can only convince someone else of the correctness of your idea if you allow the space for disagreement, and you’re truly willing to be wrong if a better idea comes up. (For example, the Dalai Lama has famously said that if science disproved a Buddhist tenet he held, he would not believe it anymore.) This doesn’t mean you don’t think you’re right; it means you don’t have your ego invested in it. That’s the hard part, and in fact that’s the goal. We can’t get to the truth of a situation if our agenda is about us winning – that’s not the truth, is it. That’s a fundamental problem with politics – many politicians aren’t interested in the truth, just about pushing an agenda. If we want our company to proceed properly, our friendship or partnership or marriage to function well, we need to be able to doubt ourselves and engage in true dialogue. The adjective for this is humble – what we practice is humble-ness, which is the same as being willing to connect with others, meet them with respect and curiosity, rather than defensiveness and aggression.

More to come.

Advocacy and stress

March 28, 2010

I had a discussion recently with a young lawyer who works as an advocate for a underserved group, wondering how and if meditation can help her. She told me that she works very long hours, and in her free time she feels guilty about not working, because her work could mean the difference between winning and losing a case – and losing isn’t an option, because it affects these people’s lives, and she couldn’t stand to lose knowing that she hadn’t done everything she could have. She said she was thinking about quitting the profession altogether and going into something where not so much was riding on her shoulders, because she didn’t know how much longer she could take the level of stress she is under.

We talked about meditation, and how it can help her work with her emotions (see my earlier posts on emotional intelligence for a discussion of this topic) – but what struck me was her serious consideration of leaving the profession. Granted, being a lawyer isn’t for everyone, but here was a obviously talented attorney thinking about dropping out of the law because of the emotional component of what she had to deal with every day.

Many people, including my friend, become lawyers as a way to help others. But sometimes we forget the adage that charity begins at home, or as the Buddha said as shortly before he died to his chief disciple Ananda, “Work out your own salvation with diligence”. In other words, in order to help others properly, we first have to help ourselves – for the same reason that the flight attendants always tell us to place the oxygen mask on our face first before helping others to put theirs on. If we’re not present, able to relax, not too serious about our emotional upheavals, and kind to ourselves, all of which are natural outcome of mindfulness meditation practice, then either we’ll burn out quickly, or we’ll spend our lives not taking care of ourselves and being somewhat or extremely unhappy.

The fallacy of my friend’s internal logic is that working nonstop and using guilt as a motivator is not in fact the most efficient way to get the results she’s looking for. As studies have shown, meditation improves focus and performance – and as a side effect makes us happier generally. So she might be able to stay in the profession, get the same results, and yet be happier (or even happy!) and more relaxed. If we think the point of our lives is to help others, we can wind up helping them much more if we help ourselves as well.


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